‘As a mother there was nothing I could do to calm my child and it was very painful’

‘As a mother there was nothing I could do to calm my child and it was very painful’

Amid and Sanaz with their two boys, Danial and Benjamin.

Amid and Sanaz’s son Danial was just four years old when Ministry of Intelligence agents came to arrest his parents.

The agents – three male, two female – first searched the family’s home and confiscated anything that could conceivably be considered related to Christianity, including some of Danial’s toys.

“‘Why are you taking that?’ I asked when an agent took away one of my son’s toys: a Santa in a snow globe,” Sanaz recalls. “He said: ‘It’s a symbol of Christianity, and should be confiscated!’”

“My son was crying profusely and wanted his tablet and toys,” Amid says. “It was very painful to see my son’s fear and tears.”

Amid and Sanaz had converted to Christianity a few years earlier, and after the Persian-speaking church they had been attending was told it could no longer welcome converts, they had started hosting church services in their home.

By the time of their arrest, in December 2015, Amid and Sanaz had been hosting church services for around three and a half years, and Amid says that “for a while” they had been anticipating the day of their arrest.

Because of this, he explains, the couple had even cancelled their Christmas party that year, and had hidden some of their personal items, like their passports, baptism certificates, and computer, which contained information about the names of church members, as well as audio files of sermons and worship songs.

They also had a number of Bibles and Christian books hidden away in a corner of their yard, covered with a cloth, and although the agents searched the house from 6.30 in the morning until noon, they didn’t find them.

But they did find the family’s Christmas trees.

“The agent took them and said: ‘They haven’t got just one or two, but three trees!’” Sanaz explains. “‘Now we’ll take you and give you a lecture so that from now on you celebrate the birth of Prophet Muhammad!’”

Amid’s elderly parents lived on the floor above them, and “cried a lot” during their arrest, Amid says, and asked: “Sir, where are you taking them? What will happen to them?” 

“The officers didn’t answer their questions,” Amid says, “though one of them eventually lied: ‘In the afternoon or tomorrow, they’ll return home.’ Then he said to my son: ‘Don’t worry, your mum will come back soon and clean the house.’ My father, mother and son were crying, and mine and my wife’s hearts were full of pain.”

Sanaz adds: “My son Danial was afraid of the behaviour of the agents, and was crying, and now he was going to be left without us, and had to stay with his grandparents. I asked an agent to let me hold my son for a minute before leaving, but he wouldn’t allow it!”

You can read Amid and Sanaz’s full Witness Statement here.

Amid and Sanaz were then driven away, and detained separately in unknown locations – in conditions Amid describes as “excruciating”, and “like hell” – for 18 and seven days, respectively, during which time they were repeatedly interrogated about their Christian activities, threatened, and told to “repent and return to Islam”.

At first, they were also refused permission to call their son, but even when this permission was eventually granted, they were made to regret it.

“When I called, my husband’s family picked up the phone and cried when they heard my voice and said: ‘Where are you?’” Sanaz recalls. “‘Since the day you left, your child has only been crying and won’t stop!’ I could hear Danial crying. As a mother, there was nothing I could do to calm my child and it was very painful. I talked to my son for about two to three minutes. Hearing my son crying made me feel worse and I said to myself that I wish I hadn’t called.

“After I ended the call, the interrogator said: ‘Where is your Jesus now? You heard your child crying; now calm him down!’ I said: ‘I didn’t do anything bad or wrong!’ He said: ‘You changed the thinking of a generation, and you say I didn’t do anything!’”

After Sanaz’s release on bail, she was summoned again and told that her husband would only be released if they both signed two blank promissory notes, which essentially meant pledging to pay an unknown person the equivalent of $200,000.

“We want to be reassured that you won’t continue your Christian activities once you are released,” the interrogator explained to Amid when he was asked to add his signature to the notes. “If you start your activities again, we’ll arrest you, and this time we’ll take you to the prison because the promissory notes show you owe a lot of money!”

A photograph of Amid on the day of his release.

Even after he was released, Amid says they felt they were under constant supervision. For the first few days, he says they “didn’t even dare to pray at home”.

“We didn’t feel safe, even in our home,” he says. “We couldn’t talk easily, or even have marital relations. Everywhere we went, they deliberately showed themselves to us to convey the message that ‘we’re watching you’… They had stolen our peace.”

Less than two months after Amid’s release, the couple fled to Turkey. They were later sentenced, in absentia, to a year each in prison for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic regime in favour of hostile groups”.

After their departure, the intelligence agents turned their attention to their families, banning them from leaving the country for 18 months, and summoning them several times for interrogation.

During one summons, Sanaz’s father was told: “We had mercy on Amid and Sanaz and temporarily released them. Tell them to come back and introduce themselves. We are an Islamic Republic; if they don’t come back, we can put them in a sack and bring them back! But if we have to go to get them ourselves, know that their sentence will be death!”

Amid and Sanaz have not returned, but the memories of those days still remain – for all of them.

“Even though many years have passed, our son Danial remembers all the bitter memories of our detention,” Amid explains. “He became very afraid of being left alone because of our arrest. We couldn’t leave him alone even for a few minutes. For example, when we went to the grocery store, I would ask him to stay behind but he would cry and say: ‘I’m afraid that they’ll take you and you won’t come back, or something will happen to you!’ When he was younger, even when he was playing in his room he would keep calling me and his mother to make sure we were home… It’s a little better now.”

Amid and Sanaz now have another son, Benjamin, who is today the same age that their firstborn was the day their lives changed forever.

‘Asylum-seekers are in a critical situation’

It’s now more than seven years since Amid and Sanaz arrived in Turkey and claimed asylum, but they are still waiting to be interviewed about their case.

“When we entered Turkey, the United Nations was here and told us the process would take two years,” Amid explains. “So we thought that that meant 2018. But now it is 2023, and our case is now in the hands of the Turkish police, and they haven’t done anything either.

The plight of Iranian Christian refugees in Turkey was the subject of a recent report by Article18 and three partner organisations.

“They always promise, ‘Go, and we’ll take care of it. Come back in another month, or a week, two days, or three days,’ but they never do anything. And it feels systematic. It’s like they have an official plan to postpone everything.”

Amid says that being refugees in Turkey is like living in “a big prison, where we aren’t allowed to decide on the smallest matters of our own, or even to go outside the city walls, because we are refugees”.

“Asylum-seekers who are Christians are in a critical situation,” he says. “Mine and my family’s situation is very sad, and not only my family’s but many Christian refugees who are here today. They are neither heard, nor are they allowed to be heard, and with the least tension or issue they are easily taken and sent back to the country that is waiting to imprison them, or something even worse. 

“It’s sad to think that one day such a situation might happen to me, but not only to me, but to any of us. I want to say that I think something should be done, and I hope that maybe someone will read this and think that they can even help one family to get out of this situation.”

The plight of Iranian Christian refugees in Turkey was the subject of a recent report by Article18 and three partner organisations. You can read the report here, and Amid and Sanaz’s full Witness Statement here.

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